Budapest with Sam Smith

November 2018 was a wild one. I’d handed in my notice and with an end date set for the 15th, the only plan was a move to London, with no job lined up and nowhere to live. Thinking back, I can’t believe I was so reckless, and it’s not something I would repeat, but at the time it was the right decision to make. Some might think of me as a quitter who couldn’t handle the intensity of a high-pressured job, but no one can understand the acute level of stress I was under in this particular role, the constant frustrations I was dealing with and the deep depression that this caused. As a free man, and feeling spontaneous with no commitments and a general ethos of “no fucks given”, I booked a very last minute flight to Budapest with a good friend. In the final weeks of work, I put so much focus into tying things over ready to leave that I didn’t even stop to consider the sudden emotion I would feel saying goodbye to all my colleagues and changing lifestyles completely.

This was my second visit to Hungary’s great capital, having stayed here three years previously on an Interrail jaunt around Central Europe with my brother. That had been in the hazy height of summer, whereas this time the air was filled with a permanent autumnal drizzle and the first notions of festive fun were starting to set in. Unified in 1873, the city originally constituted the individual towns of Buda and Pest which sat on either side of the Danube river. World War II saw Hungary fall under Nazi rule, followed by a forty-year socialist regime heavily influenced by the Soviet Union before democracy was eventually reinstated in 1989. We stayed in a newly-refurbished Airbnb within a block of apartments on the Buda side of the city which we got for a very decent price. If you’re looking to go on a city break somewhere spectacular yet also affordable, then Budapest is one of your best options in Europe. From the grandeur of its castles and palaces, to the buzz around its world-renowned thermal spas and the vibrancy of its bars and restaurants, you will never not be entertained here.

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Tramlines connect the city.

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80s sci-fi vibes @ Déli Pályaudvar.

Your best way to get around locally is via tram, and for longer distance journeys there is an excellent metro system which connects the city. The very reasonable 72-hour travel pass allows unlimited journeys on all public transport and costs just 4150 Ft (£10.56). On our first day we headed to our nearest station, the once-futuristic Déli Pályaudvar, which looks like the set of an 80s sci-fi movie, and took the tram down to Gellért Spa. Ranked highly across the board as one of the top spas in Budapest, Gellért boasts stunning art nouveau interiors of rich green, with plenty of pools at varying temperatures reaching as high as 40°C. There is also a heated outdoor pool with sauna and an ice cold plunge pool, which I dramatically subjected myself to, to the great amusement of some elderly locals. A weekday pass at Gellért Spa with locker is 6600 Ft. (£16.55) with cabins also available and treatments at varying prices. For the most impressive and luxurious indoor spa experience I would recommend Gellért, but if you’re looking for a large outdoor thermal pool with a great atmosphere, it has to be the iconic Széchenyi Baths. There is nowhere quite like Széchenyi, arguably the go-to place in Budapest, and probably the one you’ve seen plastered all over everyones Instagram (guilty!). When I came here in 2015 it was a baking hot day and the place had a summer holiday vibe but now, on a chilly night at the backend of November, steam rose up from the pools (which glow blue, red and green with underwater lighting) and you had to dash in and out of the water to avoid contracting pneumonia. There are kiosks where you can buy alcohol, and I am told that they regularly host party nights and summer blowouts. A visit to Széchenyi could easily be the highlight of your trip to Budapest, and I can’t wait to return when I finally get round to organising my tickets for the renowned Sziget Festival. A weekday pass at Széchenyi Baths is 6200 Ft. (£15.55) with cabins also available and treatments at varying prices.

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Sumptuous settings at Gellért Spa.

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The unmissable Széchenyi at night.

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The crossing point at Liberty Bridge.

Even though the city is so well connected, I would still highly recommend taking in as much on foot as you can. After a relaxing afternoon at Gellért, you can stroll across the ornate Liberty Bridge and then take a 20-minute walk alongside the Danube until you reach the buzzing District V area. This is where you will find the best shops and restaurants, as well as the marvellous St Stephen’s Basilica and the Great Synagogue on Dohány út. (the largest synagogue in Europe which was sadly being renovated during our visit). For bars and nightlife, head to the booming Goszdu Passage, a narrow pedestrianised walkway with an endless choice of tastefully-lit courtyards in which to enjoy a pint of Borsodi, a glass of Tokaj or even a cheeky pálinka if you’re feeling adventurous. Budapest’s wide leafy avenues are reminiscent of London (right down to the fact they have Tesco) and I could never get bored of window shopping up and down Andrássy út. If you want to try Hungarian food but are unsure of what to pick, a good place to start is the bustling Trófea Grill on Király út. This swanky buffet-style restaurant has a huge range of Hungarian and international cuisine at only 6999 Ft (£17.81) per person for all you can eat and drink, making it hard to avoid. Be careful with tipping in Hungarian forint on a card machine, because with the inflation rate being so high it’s scarily easy to get mixed up and accidentally tip £400 instead of £4 – a mistake I was adamant I had made until I checked my balance and was able to breathe again.

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A drink or two down Gozsdu.

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Hustle, bustle and festive fun in District V.

Not far from District V you will find the Országház in Kossuth Square, Hungary’s largest building which holds its parliament and is unmissable from the Danube, especially when lit up at night. In the square, where two unsmiling soldiers patrol in a circle around a large flagpole, you can visit an exhibition based on the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, focusing specifically on the Kossuth Square Massacre, known as Bloody Thursday, which took place here on 25th October. It is unclear how many people were killed, but some estimates say as many as 1000 protesters were gunned down by around 22 Soviet-backed officials. The Hungarian political climate today is far from settled with right-wing nationalism fast on the rise and the hugely popular prime minister Viktor Orbán running frequent scare campaigns against immigrants. Basic democratic freedoms seem to be slipping away – families with more than two children are rewarded with large pay-outs from the government, while the rest of the population suffers as a result. A Hungarian girl I met in a Marylebone smoking area described Budapest as being “lovely to visit but awful to live in”, and the sad truth is that more young people than ever are leaving Hungary for other European countries. Unfortunately, wherever you go in Europe the rise in far-right nationalism is worryingly prominent. Yes, Hungary is probably the worst-case scenario, but attitudes in right-wing Austria are strikingly similar and far-right parties in Spain, Italy and Germany have all gained traction in recent years. I don’t have the energy to discuss Brexit in depth today, but it’s clear to see how this ties in with the overarching swing to the right across Europe and the world. Commentators have described Orbán’s ruling as being akin to a dictatorship and with a growing number of young people angry over the current situation, I have a feeling this new decade could be a fairly tumultuous one for Hungary.

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The opulent Országház.

During our few days exploring Budapest, I spent a lot of time contemplating my decision to leave my job and listening to Sam Smith’s second album The Thrill of it All, which had come out a year previously but I was only just getting into now. I see no issue with enjoying an album late, because sometimes you are just not in the right mind-set when it comes out. Rarely will I trust a review which is published on the week of release, because how can anyone expect to have a fully formed opinion in such a short space of time? Music is to be absorbed gradually, not slotted in for a brief listen on a busy Saturday ready to be slated nationally in the Sunday morning Observer. For instance, having been obsessed with Flower Boy, I didn’t instantly connect with Tyler the Creator’s Igor, but I know the moment will come when I properly take it in. In the dizzying, complicated weeks after quitting my job, The Thrill of it All seemed to slip into my musical canon quite naturally.

For some reason I am persistently told I look like Sam Smith, even though I do not see the resemblance at all. I used to be frustrated with the comparison, but have learnt to embrace it. Appearance is not the only similarity, because many of his songs are so deeply relatable to the point where it feels I could have written them myself. The Thrill of it All is an album of sadness, of the last bits of childish innocence being dashed, but also of great hope and progression. When something comes to an end there is always pain whatever it happens to be, whether it’s a job, a school era or something more personal like a relationship. Smith, alongside an ever-present pianist and gospel choir, manages to convey this sense of pain and loss very well. For me the standout track will always be Burning. Every lyric seems to relate directly with the depressive phases I have gone in and out of since leaving university and dealing with the realities of “adult life”. My personal experience of growing up over the past few years has centred on an increase in self-awareness and a gradual loss of innocence and childishness. As a naturally exuberant person, I have come to realise that this can sometimes lead to me seeking attention, making one too many jokes and becoming something of a liability. Likewise, on days where I feel withdrawn, people will still expect me to play the part of “the entertainer” which is impossible to do 24/7. Yes, I have a generally positive attitude and am very optimistic about the future, but Burning manages to exemplify the gnawing feelings of sadness I have battled over recent years.

The lead single, Too Good at Goodbyes, was the song I had on repeat for the few days after leaving my job. To quote Lana Del Rey’s excellent video for Ride, my “inner indecisiveness that was as wide and as wavering as the ocean” is probably what has always held me back from making closer connections in the workplace, particularly throughout 2017 and 2018, because at the back of my mind I never really wanted to be in the jobs I was doing and was always trying to think of a way out, rather than just living in the moment. This, along with a certain degree of internalised homophobia, is what stopped me from being my real self at work, in turn causing depression. During my last week on the job I was overwhelmed by the wave of support and appreciation from my colleagues, which made me regret not throwing more of myself into forming stronger relationships and even question whether I had made the right decision in leaving. This reluctance to form closer ties at work boils down to a fear of commitment, which of course has manifested itself in my personal life too. For this reason, I have never managed to engage in a long-term relationship, instead relying too much on close friends to emulate the role of a partner, which is fine to an extent but can eventually become oppressive and damaging. Too Good at Goodbyes for me represents the barriers I put up with new people, a pattern I have tried hard to break over the past year, and I now work in a role which makes it impossible not to just be myself.

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Braving the outdoor pool at Gellért.

The other deeply relatable song on the album is Pray, in which Smith delves into his own spirituality, backed up by the voices of a gospel choir. In general, there seems to be an awful lot of discourse on religion: on growing up under religion, on challenging religion, on the bureaucracy of religion, on causing offence to particular religions etc., but I rarely come across the perspectives of a rising number of people who have grown up without faith. From the outside looking in, I will often count myself lucky to have been brought up with free thought, not being forced to listen to the words of any particular prophet and the ability to make my decisions based solely on this life rather than following the obsession with what might happen after death. In times of bereavement though, which is what I am going through as I write this, I imagine that the connection with faith and a belief in the existence of an afterlife make the whole process more bearable, more beautiful, less concrete. In Pray, Smith alludes to late nights deep in thought, where the idea of a greater, omniscient presence does occasionally drift into mind. Leaving school as a cocky 18-year-old atheist, the idea of believing in God seemed unfathomable, but the older I get the more I can acknowledge the necessity of faith for millions of people in giving reason to the unending pitfalls of life. Even without religion, I will always be in awe of the incredible places of worship around the world built painstakingly by human beings as a dedication to God, and will always feel at peace when I visit. My own beliefs are still being shaped but, for now, my view is that God represents the greater goodness that exists within all humanity, and it’s no coincidence that this has been defined as an omnipotent being by the many religions formed by humans over thousands of years. In times of great suffering or sadness, we naturally draw together and go in search of reasoning and, as Sam Smith says, “pray for a glimmer of hope”. Religion brings ritual to the stages of life. In living a life without religion or belief in an omniscient God, the immediate weeks following the death of a loved one can seem chaotic. Without faith, a belief in the greater goodness amongst humans becomes essential. The goodness of the person who has died lives on through the people they knew, and in turn this is imparted onto others. Pray draws on our most vulnerable moments in life, the points at which we are forced to go inwards and think spiritually, because to think objectively becomes too hard.

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Foggy night alongside the Danube.

As well as listening in Budapest, The Thrill of it All has seen me through recent months and will always be a big album for me. When people laugh and tell me I look like Sam Smith I laugh along too, but with an underlying notion of sadness, because they are unaware that the similarities go deeper than just looks.

Listen to The Thrill of it All on Apple Music or on Spotify.

 

Dedicated to Janet Samson, who always supported my work.

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